Passing the ‘Pass’ test

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Day 8

It’s not always that you wake up in the morning to the sight of Yak grazing outside your tent. So, no prizes for guessing that I was thrilled to bits. P1020754Two passes awaited me today and although skeptical about my stamina, I was ready for the test. Having camped last evening at the foot of the first pass to be climbed -the Kyamayuri La at a height of 5350m above sea level – it was obviously going to be an uphill task today. So I packed my stuff and set off in earnest, taking in the sight of the nomads heading out with their herds.img_20170829_175217.jpgThe climb started off well, with the slope being gentle under my feet. I took in the mountains towering over me on one side and a stringy rivulet snaking through the terrain on the other. But it soon started to get tougher. As the slope grew steeper and the air thinner, I found it more and more difficult to take every next step. Less than an hour into the trek, I was on the verge of accepting defeat. It was so tough, I found myself taking a five minute break after every ten steps. When I got half-way up, I turned back and looked at a swarm of sheep closing in on me. On the adjacent hill, sheep dogs were running up and down the much steeper slopes as though they were flatter than my flat feet! P1020756 (2)To rub salt into the wound, all the other guys in my team and the French team trekked past me with what seemed like considerable ease. In my frustration, I put it down to my being the oldest among them all (which was true!), but in my heart I knew it had nothing to do with my age – I was just not fit enough! My months of training before the trek stood me in good stance on the plains, but the passes were something else!

Well, it took me a rather long time, but I finally managed to reach the top of the pass. And the pass decided to reward me with some of the most stunning vistas spread around it -that and some sensuous curves that I guess only the artist in me can appreciate.P1020758 (2)P1020757 (2)I guess the lost-and-found adventure of the day before yesterday had made Tashi realize that he couldn’t afford to lose sight of me again and consequently, I found him waiting for me at the top. I was glad he did and as we started our descent, we exchanged a bit of info about ourselves. I got to know that he was a student at a college in Jammu and joined trekkers as a guide during vacation time. He also had a girlfriend -Sonam- back home and planned to visit her once this trek was completed. I too shared some tit-bits from my life with him and sparse with words that I am, I was soon out of things to talk about by the time we had descended into the Gyama Barma valley and walked to the foot of the next pass.P1020762 (2)P1020763 (2)Through the route, the ground had a hint of fresh green on it thanks to the grass and patches of these soft moss-like growth. I found out later that these are known botanically as the Thylacospermum caespitosum. Their almost cushion-like form helps trap heat around the crucial growing parts and thus helps cope with not only very low temperatures but also limited soil and water.P1020760After a good amount of rest and something to munch on, we started climbing the next pass – the Kartse La at 5300m. As I took my first few steps up the dark, blackish slope of the mountain, I could already spot the rest of the team approaching the top. At that moment, a voice in my head screamed, ‘What will they think of you? Slow-coach!’ Given the physical and psychological toll the first pass had taken on me, it was easy to slip into a negative frame of mind and I was soon wondering if I had it in me to attempt yet another steep climb.

Tashi had already made a head start and now, when I turned back, all I could see was a vast light green valley nestled between several high mountains. There was not a soul -not even an animal- in sight for as far as my eyes could see. I didn’t have a choice here – I’d just have to climb and get to the other side of the pass to Gyama, our destination for the day. Closing my eyes, I reminded myself that I wasn’t a quitter. So what if I was slow and had to stop after every ten steps? I was still moving ahead, wasn’t I? And I had already crossed one torturous pass, which was no mean achievement. The small self-pep-talk did me good and I soon began my second ascent of the day.

I don’t have any photographs of this leg of the trek since I was a tired wreck and my only aim was to climb that god-damned pass! It was by far the most arduous thing I’d ever done in my life and when I finally reached the top after a couple of hours, I just threw down my trekking pole and lay down flat on the ground, almost in tears. And yet, I knew that the day’s trek was far from over. I still had to complete the descent and trek for several kilometers before reaching the camp-site. Getting back to my feet, I spent some time taking in the sights around me. The snow-capped mountains that had looked far and unreachable from the plains were now tantalizingly close. And the grey clouds slowly moved away, opening up to reveal patches of bright blue.P1020761 (2)P1020767 (2)P1020768 (2)After lingering for a while, I started my descent feeling like a zombie; but I was happy that the worst (at least for today!) was now behind me. Albeit with poor grades, I had passed the ‘pass’ test! All that remained now was to get to the camp-site in one piece. Tashi had been really patient until now – although it must’ve been frustrating for a sprightly 21-year-old, he had slowed his pace considerably so I could remain within his cone of vision. Hoping to relieve his agony, I asked him to explain the route to me and get ahead if he wanted to . . . which he readily did.P1020769 (2)P1020766 (2)Alone amidst the mountains once again, I took my time ambling through the desolate valley – passing a rather lean stream, crossing an arid, stony expanse and finally arriving at another slightly broader stream where I saw his beautiful golden-maned dog, almost blending into the terrain. The French team had set up camp not too far from here, but my blue dining tent was nowhere to be seen. P1020771 (2)Letting out a curse, I trudged along for half an hour more before I spotted the tent. However, it was on the other side of the stream, which meant I had to walk some more before arriving at a spot from where I could cross over easily. I’m so not joking when I say I let out a slew of curses at this point! It seemed like the universe was conspiring to keep me away from the comfort of my little green tent!!P1020773 (2)So no prizes for guessing that as soon as I reached the camp site, I kicked off my shoes and ran into my tent as if to greet a long-lost friend. And no sooner than I’d started to rummage though the back-pack for my book to read with the hot juice Siddharth was preparing, the sky turned grey again and it started to snow! It seemed as though the snow had been patiently waiting for me to make it to the camp before showering down. If that were so, I must give it a nod of appreciation ‘coz I don’t think I could have completed the day’s trek had it snowed earlier. That would definitely have been the proverbial last straw in my case!P1020774At first, the sharp pitter-patter made me believe it was raining, not snowing; but I soon realized it was otherwise. Popping my head out of the tent, I was hit by these small thermocol-ball sized flakes of snow that also stole inside the tent through the edges.

Having zero energy to put on my shoes again along with a raincoat to head to the dining tent, I decided to skip my meal altogether. Siddharth, however, wasn’t pleased with my decision. He’d, after all, cooked a delicious meal for us and didn’t want me to miss it. So he ran to my tent under the snow with a plate of pasta and boiled veggies and a bowl of soup and insisted I call him for another serving if required. Well, this was one of the best dinners of the trek, had huddled in my tent even as the snowfall gathered momentum outside, and it made me understand what it meant to cook with love.P1020778P1020777With the snow busying itself with rendering the entire landscape white, I finished my dinner at a leisurely pace and prepared myself for a good night’s sleep. But sleep did not come easily. Lying on my mattress, with the sound of snowflakes knocking on my tent providing a soothing background score, I was acutely aware of every bone and muscle in my body even as my mind replayed the entire 8 hours of the day’s trek. Today’s was the toughest challenge I’d ever faced and although I was glad to put it all behind me, I also felt that this was one experience I’d miss more than anything else when I got back to the humdrum of everyday life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rite of Passage

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Day 4

Waking up inside my tent on Day 4 was a surreal experience. The bells on Namgyal’s horses had kept jangling through the otherwise cold and silent night, reassuring me even as I slept fitfully -being claustrophobic, it took me a while to get used to the confines of the tent. When dawn broke, I peeped out to find frozen dew on the tent and grass – it must have snowed high up in the passes during the night. The thought made me happy. I guess snow has a special place in my heart considering I live in a city that experiences almost eight months of summer each year, with temperatures peaking to just under 50deg C in May. And then, watching snow fall is on my list of the top ten romantic experiences one can ever have.

When I crept out of the tent to stretch myself, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Despite preparing for six long months, it took time for it to sink in that I was now in a tent in the middle of a valley in Ladakh . . .with just four people and five horses for company! I inhaled the fresh mountain air and took a short stroll by the rivulet before the others woke up and got busy with their respective chores. Having deposited me in the care of the trekking crew, Stanzin and Jimmy left for Leh early. George and myself packed up our stuff, had a quick but hearty breakfast and set off in the route explained to us by Tashi. The others would follow later, after cleaning and wrapping up things at the campsite.

And just like that, I was on my maiden trek!

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My trekking route in red with pit-stops marked in blue

Thanks to the ‘camping style’ trek I’d chosen, I didn’t have to carry my heavy backpack – the horses would do that for me! So, I set out with a smaller day-pack with some bare necessities and water, trying to match George stride by stride. The first few kilometers were easy enough. I was fresh, energetic and raring to go and we mostly walked on a road in-the-making. On either side, there were nothing but tufts of grass and a lot many pebbles in the foreground while much farther away was a pleasantly undulating horizon in all directions. P1020636 (2)As we walked, George filled me in on the previous half of his trek and gave me tips on tackling tiredness, the most important one being not to ever sit down to rest -that would make it several times harder to get back to trekking. An ideal scenario would be to just place one’s bag and trekking pole down and stand for a while before resuming. I followed his advice . . .for a while. But somewhere around 10kms into the trek, I was itching to park my bums somewhere. That’s also when a stream materialized out of nowhere, giving me a pretext to take a break. So I removed my shoes and sat on a rock with my tired feet dipped in the cool waters. Wow . . . was that Bliss or what!p1020641-e1535224101315.jpgWhen we resumed our trek after the unplanned indulgence, I noticed that the terrain had completely changed. We now had rows of reddish-brown rocky/sandy hills on one side while the plains stretched for miles on the other. P1020643That’s when I also came across the first bit promised by the trek description – Changpa nomads grazing their sheep and Pasmina goat. Although there weren’t many of the latter -George had encountered many more during the previous leg of his trek – I was happy enough for a chance to see them.P1020647Tashi and gang had caught up with us by now and even overtaken us. They would reach the next camp site and set up the dining tent well in advance so we could have something to eat as soon as we reached. As we continued trekking, the sun moved to the top of our heads and was shining rather brightly, even as cold winds blew mercilessly. It reminded me of the folk-tale where the Sun and the Wind quarrel over who is mightier and the matter is settled when the heat from the Sun forces a farmer to remove all his clothes. The terrain also changed subtly, with the mountains closing in on my right, wearing different colors -light orange, red, turquoise blue . . .and of course black. They weren’t close enough to figure out what gave them these colors but few days later, I realized that every mountain in the region was covered with a different type of stone and it was the chemical composition of these stones that gave them the unique colors. I even saw a beautiful purple mountain later that seemed like an illusion but was in fact very real!P1020648 (2)We’d covered over 15kms in 5 hours by now and I guess tiredness was starting to show on my face. So George, a seasoned trekker, decided to give me a pep talk. He said every trekker has to undergo the Rite of Passage – that moment when he/she completely breaks down and then rises up to the challenge with a renewed resolve.  He also warned me this was only the beginning and that I should brace myself for the passes that would be the real test of strength and character.

Despite the talk, my pace reduced drastically during the last leg of the trek. George was still as fresh as when we started out, so I told him to go right ahead and not wait for me. With him walking several hundred paces ahead of me before disappearing at a bend, it felt strange to be walking alone in the valley. It was alternately pleasant and punishing – the former because of the sheer beauty that surrounded me and the latter because of my own sagging stamina. But then, I realized that trekking, as are the most challenging situations life throws at us, is all about listening to the body even as we control /manipulate our mind. So, I talked to myself and became my own motivator over the last few kilometers. And you have no idea of the relief I felt when the tip of the blue dining tent made an appearance in my cone of vision! Soon as I reached the camp site, I kicked off my shoes, put down the trekking pole and lay down flat on the grass. With closed eyes, I replayed the experience of the entire day and figured I’d not done so badly for a first time trekker!

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That’s orange juice in the kettle – not tea!

Siddhartha soon beckoned with hot orange juice and noodles that I devoured like never before. We then chatted for a long time as he prepared dinner.That’s when I learned that he is a trekking guide back home in Nepal where he takes trekkers along the Annapurna Circuit every year. It is only during off-season back home that he comes to Ladakh and since he’s not eligible to work as a guide here due to certain regulations, he accompanies trekkers as a cook. I was mighty impressed because he does cook marvelously well! That evening, he made some bhajias followed by mutton curry, rotis, rice and dal. It was a joy to watch him work deftly as he cooked all of this on his twin kerosene stoves with some help from Namgyal.

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Siddhartha at work . . .

I had an early dinner that day and just around the time I’m typing this out on my computer today – 6.32pm, I retired to my tent, pushing away the idea of lying on the grass and watching the stars to another day. And soon as my head hit my fleece-jacket pillow, I slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Where is Dat (that)?

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Day 3

Nomadic Trails . . . doesn’t it sound romantic? Especially when accompanied by a  description that says – you will pass through the Changthang plateau characterized by high arid plains, pasture lands where you can spot Changpa nomads grazing their herds of Pashmina goats, yak and sheep, snow-capped peaks and azure-blue lakes . . .

Well, I definitely fell for it, doubly so when I saw the ‘medium strenuous’ label attached to it. However, it turned out that no one else was mesmerized by the idea last year and I ended up being the only one to sign up for it which meant, it would be more expensive than anticipated. Then one day, before I left for Leh, I received an email from one George saying he was starting his trek from Padum and if I met him halfway at Dat, we could complete the rest of the trek to Tso Moriri together and maybe even save some money in the bargain. I pondered for a while and sent him a mail in the affirmative.

Hubby dear panicked, naturally, with some help from dear sis. Here I was, agreeing to trek in the middle of nowhere with some stranger called George. Unfortunately for him, when I make up my mind to so something, I DO that something. So, that was how I ended up waking early at Stanzin’s home-stay at Leh on the 25th August 2017 to make sure I’d packed everything I needed for the next 8 days.

The last week of August is considered one of the better windows for trekking in Ladakh – the weather is good with less or no rains and an oh-so-slight chill starts to creep into the air, making it comfortable for trekkers. But with snowfall anticipated high up in the passes I was to trek through, I’d packed enough warm clothes. After a quick breakfast, I hopped into the awaiting Scorpio with Stanzin. With a cheerful Jimmy at the wheel, we were soon breezing down the Leh-Manali highway towards Dat.

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Jimmy’s vehicle, christened after himself, is ready to fly!

The meandering roads -well constructed and maintained by the Border Roads Organization’s Himank project – took us through some mesmerizing terrain that included the banks of the more slender and tame version of the Indus. But what stood out in the midst of nature’s splendor during the drive was something clearly man-made. Take a look at these witty road signs by the BRO that added an element of fun to the drive.

There were more, to be sure. A couple more signs that I can recall are: Safety on road means Safe Tea at home & Don’t Gossip, let him drive! And then, there was this one that that left me foxed for sure – Don’t be a Gama in the land of Lama . . . what ever does Gama mean!!

Well, after a long time spent on the road, we made a pit-stop at the Taglang-la pass, which, at an altitude of 17,582ft above sea level, is the second highest motorable pass in the world after Khardung-la. It was severely windy and we quickly found ourselves savoring black tea inside the warm confines of a parachute restaurant -a very common sight across the region.

tanglang-la-and-the-prayer.jpg      IMG_20170825_113014After the short break, we were on the road once again and soon reached the detour that would lead us into the Kharnak valley and to Dat. Two things caught my eye here: 1. the signboard that gave a census report of the Pashmina goats in the valley and 2. the memorial to a martyred Jawan hailing from the region.

IMG_20170825_115815 (2)As we continued our drive on the non-existent road through the valley, I was getting more and more eager to reach the camp site. However, when, after hours of driving we were still nowhere near Dat, I turned to Stanzin with a questioning look. Imagine my surprise when he revealed that he’d never been to this part of Ladakh before! Add to that, there was no cell phone network through which to contact George, no internet connection to check an online map and not a soul around to ask for directions! Yet, for some reason, I did not get perturbed – maybe I had faith in Stanzin’s mountain instincts? So, I continued enjoying the drive, certain that we’d find our destination.  Sure enough, after one more hour of driving over some passes and through the valley, we finally reached Dat.

Dat is a tiny nomad village nestled in the Kharnak Valley of Ladakh. Kharnak, I learned, means Black Castle and was at some point in history, the domain of some Ladakhi King. The Black in the name is in reference to the decidedly black soil that covers most of the rugged terrain here. With low-roofed houses made of locally available stone and animal hide, the village is home to the Dat nomads only during the harsh winter months of October to March and sometimes until June. At other times they wander around in the high mountain passes where there is enough grass and shrubbery available for their animals to graze on. But even during these times, one or two villagers regularly ride back to the village on horses every second day to light a candle at the famed Dat monastery. 

Well, now that we were at Dat, I was overjoyed and itching to meet George and the camping crew who’d be my company for the next 8 days. However there was no one to be found. After several minutes of waiting and hunting through the tiny hamlet, we found a young chap who informed us that the group had started out towards the next pit-stop after lunch and must be anywhere in the valley right now! Thankfully, Stanzin knew the trekking route and we were soon driving in the direction, hoping to reach the camp site before dark. And we did! After a couple of hours more of driving, we finally spotted the blue dining tent set up on the banks of a rivulet.

P1020651 (3)Disembarking from the vehicle, I followed Stanzin inside where he introduced me to the crew: Tashi, a 21-year-old college-going lad was the guide, Siddhartha, a young Nepali  cook, Namgyal, the horseman with five beautiful horses and finally there was George, my trekking companion. Thanks to my sub-conscious stereotyping and no thanks to Stanzin who never really clarified who George was (actually, I too didn’t bother asking him…), I’d imagined him to be a foreigner. It so turned out the George was/is a true blue Keralite and a charming one at that! P1020635The air was starting to turn chilly around us by the time I’d set up my tent with help from Stanzin and Tashi. So we all gathered back in the dining tent where the fire, the delicious food whisked up by Siddhartha and the conversation kept us warm. We chatted into the night, exchanging notes from the adventurous day and getting to know each other better and when I finally returned to my tent, I couldn’t wait for it to be morning again so I could start my trek.IMG_20170825_183709 (2)Well, that brings me to the end of Day 3 in Ladakh. See you all on the other side of the night with more adventure and some bit of self-realization . . .

 

 

Julley!

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Days 1 & 2

From the time I reached Stanzin’s home-stay to when I bid goodbye to Leh, the one refrain that was a constant companion was -Julley! The Ladakhi Julley is the equivalent of Namaste/ Hello and people greet each other with the word all the time, respectfully bending their head as they do so. I was soon doing the same with gusto and by the end of my trip I came to the conclusion that it is a rather Julley Good Word (forgive the pun)!

I spent two days in Leh to get acclimatized, considering I’d been sufficiently warned about the thin air and its side-effects. And I spent my time well, exploring the old town, the Leh Palace and adjoining LAMO center, the various foodie hot-spots, the bazaar and visiting SECMOL, the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh established by the now famous Mr. Sonam Wangchuk. I’ll not bore you with too many details though, and rather leave you with a few photographs of places/stuff that intrigued me. Do scroll down to the very end ‘coz the last photo is by far the most interesting 😉

And until we meet again on the first day of my trek, Julley!

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Wish I were a Snow Leopard . . .
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Hello! says Mr. Yaksha perched atop the entrance to the Leh Palace
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Did you notice the sign that says – Entrance fee is a smile?
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Two rather intriguing laundry ads . . .the list & illustrations are to die (laughing) for!
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View from the Ladies’ Toilet of a rooftop restaurant -no pane, all gain 🙂
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Traditional wooden tandoors run mostly by immigrants from Kargil
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Hot kehwa at Cafe Lo with freshly baked sesame bun from the tandoor outside -the strains of Namaaz filtering in from the neighboring mosque completed the ambience.
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A cozy nook built by SECMOL students -the temp within was 5 degrees lower than outside
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The Donkey Sanctuary – a novel concept!
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The Me Too moment OR Who says Donkeys don’t like to be photographed? 🙂
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Remember the Museum where I met Stanzin Yanrul? It showcases a variety of minerals, stones -precious or otherwise – and fossils found across the vast expanse of Ladakhi terrain. The place is tiny and dingy and clearly calls out for investment to better preserve the specimen; but what it represents – one man’s (Phunchok Angchok) passion and respect for the terrain he calls home – is way more precious than words can describe.
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The lady at the Tibetan market downtown made me a pair of Turquoise ear-rings and bracelet. She said the stones were sourced from the Ladakhi terrain by nomads and then processed by few cottage-industries around Leh before being used for making jewelry and artifacts.
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Delicious Thupka!
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A metal tree outside the LAMO center
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When a restaurant teaches you Ladakhi swear words!!

 

 

The Curious Case of the many Stanzins

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Days 1 & 2

Landing at the Leh airport, I was greeted by Stanzin, waiting to whisk me away to my homestay. Stanzin Odzer is the owner of Ecological Footprints, the company that was organizing my trek. I had never seen Stanzin before and had only spoke with him once over the phone. Even so, I was sure this wasn’t Stanzin as soon as the guy at the airport said his first few words of greeting. My safety antennae buzzed vigorously, but I stayed calm and asked him who he was. ‘Stanzin’, he replied nonchalantly and chucked my baggage into the car before we sped off.

Reaching the homestay, he showed me to my room, arranged for a hot-water bath and later got me steaming hot lunch. He was rather quiet through it all though, making me a tad uneasy. Although I was happy with his hospitality, I was constantly wondering if this was the guy arranging my trek. It was only around tea-time that another Stanzin made his appearance – taller, thinner and wearing a ready smile unlike his other namesake. It was when discussing with him that I realized that Stanzin is a very common name in Ladakh. When a child is born, the parents write to their spiritual leader (Lama) for blessings and the Lama writes back with a name that will be child’s given name forever. When the letter happens to be addressed to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the child is usually christened Stanzin after the spiritual leader’s name -Stanzin Gyatso. The name means -holder of the Buddha Dharma.

During my stay in Ladakh, I came across so many Stanzins, it was rather mind-boggling! My home-stay hosts themselves, for instance, had three Stanzins amongst them. First- Stanzin Odzer, the guy organizing my trek; second -the guy who welcomed me at the airport and who was also Odzer’s brother-in-law and third – Odzer’s little four-year-old son! Then, I came across a beautiful book of poetry at the Ladakh Arts and Media Organization (LAMO) center at the Leh Palace whose author was a Stanzin Lhaskyabs.

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But before you think the name is masculine, let me tell you that I met an equal number of female Stanzins. Take for instance the young college girl managing the Ladakh Rocks and Minerals Preservation Study and Museum -just a few minutes walk from my home-stay. When the charming girl, who works part-time at the museum,  introduced herself as Stanzin Yanrul, I couldn’t help smiling. I met another lady Stanzin at a tea-stall on the Leh-Manali highway en-route to the starting point of my trek and yet another one at the Leh airport on my way back!

Well, now that I’ve revealed the mystery of the many Stanzins, I’ll sign off and return tomorrow with more fodder from the Leh stable. Until then, you keep ruminating over the Shakespearean quote – What’s in a name . . .

 

 

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator

Time flies… specially if you are a procrastinator like I sometimes am. It has been almost a year since I set off on my maiden trek in Ladakh. The date was 22nd August 2017, to be precise. And my aim was to mark my 40th birthday by trekking in the splendid beauty of Ladakh’s barren landscapes that I’d only seen in photographs of others before. So, six months before the intended date, I booked myself a moderately strenuous (I’m a sucker for anything that’s not labelled ‘easy’!!) camping-style trek from the Kharnak Valley a few hours away from Leh to the pristine Tsomoriri. And I prepped for the trek by diligently following a walking routine so my body would not rebel when the D-day arrived.

After the super-awesome trek, I returned home with the resolve to write down a day-by-day account of my experience here, on my blog, asap. That was a year ago, and as you can see, my asap didn’t arrive until today! All I did manage to write back then, was the heading/title for the post for each day of my trek.

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If you’re wondering about the curious last line, you’ll have to wait until I reach the day of my trek that gave me this profound insight 🙂

Getting back to the here and now, I have finally decided to procrastinate no more! So, over the next ten days, I’ll try and relive the wonderful experience through my blog. Discipline is not my strongest quality – despite being a mother and professor -but I hope to change that at least for this short duration. Comments from you readers would definitely be an inspiration and propellant and I do hope my posts will be engaging enough to warrant your precious comments. So, I’ll sign off for the moment, and come back tomorrow with Julley! 🙂